So we are now just over three weeks away from the General Election.
All of us who are concerned with the erosion of access to justice under coalition have been counting the days for the last five years. So what have the parties been saying about it and what changes, if any, would a change of government bring?
A Conservative government has promised further and deeper cuts to public services so we can rule out any hope of any return to legal aid or reversal of the cuts which have taken place. Indeed, Justice Minister, Chris Grayling has shown nothing short of contempt for the rights of ordinary people. The most recent example of this has been the shocking increases in court fees by up to 600% in some cases. We also saw the introduction of fees in Employment Tribunals which has led to a shameful reduction of 80% in the number of claims. At least with the tories we know where we are and we know where we are going!
But what about the opposition? Labour has published a document which talks about ‘safer communities’. However, whilst policing and domestic violence are very important topics, the report is silent on more fundamental justice issues. It is available here –
Labour has now said that the Tribunal Fees would be abolished which is big step in the right direction.
The only party, as far as I can see that has committed to a re-instatement of legal aid is the Green Party. Their Policy Statement of Responsibility and Rights includes the following –
‘Access to justice should not depend on a person's financial situation. Where a person would not otherwise be able to access it, the state should, through a comprehensive system of legal aid, enable access to appropriate legal advice and/or representation.’
In fairness you do have to go searching for it. But it is a clear statement of intent. Now we all know that the Green Party will not form the next government. But it seems likely that nobody will win a clear majority on 7th May so minor parties could well have some influence. But whether this particular commitment would carry weight remains to be seen.
The overall picture is one of disappointing silence. There do not seem to be many votes in access to justice.
But there has been one hopeful sign from Labour today. Their candidate for the safe seat of Holborn and St Pancras is none other than Sir Keir Starmer QC, the former Director of Public Prosecutions and well know barrister. In an interview with the Independent he says that access to justice is in crisis. He calls for a full review and says that access to justice – ‘must be a yardstick against which we measure success’.
At this stage he is only a candidate. But he is very likely to win. Such is his profile and status that he is unlikely to remain on the back benches for any length of time. He will inevitably have a significant on justice policy going forwards.
It may be clutching at straws, but this could be the most significant development to date.
I will continue to watch this rather large space!